Sunday, February 24, 2013

A rooftop oasis above the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

The Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda with as many golden tiny sculptures representing the Buddha surrounds another, smaller pagoda (seen above), where a huge, enamel-gilt Vairocana Buddha Prayer Wheel is slowly turned around by the faithful. It churns out prayers to the gods up in the skies.
Last week, I had much longed for visitors here in Singapore. My sister and her youngest daughter spent their "skiing holiday" here in Singapore doing everything else but skiing, a sport so ingrained in the Finnish culture that even the winter school holiday is called after it. While exploring as much as possible of Singapore and its culture during this all too tiny length of time, we ended up at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown. Built in Ming-period style and opened only in 2007, this eye-catchingly colorful and gilded (well, rather garish, really...) temple houses a revered relic said to be a tooth of Buddha.

Ferns, frangipanis and orchids - even a species called Dendrobium Buddha Tooth after the temple - fill the luxuriously green and shady rooftop garden, protected by the pagoda walls and roofs from all sides.
What I - and probably many other visitors - have missed during my previous visits is climbing up to the rooftop level of the building. Here, above the busy temple (where less wattage and bling would surely have been enough to make the gods equally happy), a roof garden with its lush, rich planting forms a calm and serene oasis to enjoy by the faithful and the tired wanderers alike. Palms, ferns, frangipanis and numerous varieties of orchids - even a species called Dendrobium Buddha Tooth after the temple - fill the luxuriously green and shady rooftop garden, gently protected by the pagoda walls and roofs from leaf ripping winds and stinging rays of sunshine. In my secular mind, a quiet contemplation of the tropical beauty of the plants should be as worthy as a prayer as any chanted in front of the gilded sculptures.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Haw Par Villa in Singapore - Tiger Balm with Chinese mythology

 Entrance gate to the Haw Par Villa, or the Tiger Balm Gardens as this park was called earlier - it would be quite impossible to miss the logotype tiger in the middle section...
Maybe I should start with a warning for ugly pictures. Or maybe not. As usual, it depends.

As I wrote earlier, we've been exploring the Chinese heritage of Singapore in preparation for the Lunar New Year celebrations for the sign of the Snake. Plants, foods, treats, decorations, traditions - all loaded with profuse symbolism - have been studied, tested and/or tasted, and found when not delicious, then at least interesting. Our first Chinese New Year celebration was completed by a trip to Haw Par Villa in southwest Singapore, a place where many Singaporean Chinese families spent their free days until a couple of decades ago.
 The Aw brothers welcoming guests to their gardens? 'Boon Haw' means 'gentle tiger' and 'Boon Par' 'gentle leopard', and even the supporting pillars carry their spots and stripes (the tiger hides behind the corner).

 Gong Xi Fa Cai - Happy New Year to you all! Entrance is free, and the park open from 9am to 7pm daily. Recommended for an imaginative stroll through Chinese mythology and legends.
Haw Par Villa has also been know by the name Tiger Balm Gardens, and both names act as a clue to the origins. This park-like complex was built in 1937 by Aw Boon Haw (1882-1954), a businessman of Chinese origin from Burma, for his brother Aw Boon Par (1888-1944). After settling in Singapore in 1926, both brothers ('Boon Haw' meaning 'gentle tiger' and 'Boon Par' 'gentle leopard') made millions by Tiger Balm, a hugely successful herbal rub their father had invented in the Chinese Emperor's court in the 1870s, before relocating to Rangoon in Burma. It was Boon Haw, who named the ointment for 'Tiger Balm', and successfully sold it to surrounding countries like Malaya, Hong Kong, Batavia, Siam and various cities in China, and later on to pretty much all countries of the entire world.

 Tigers in abundance, this fiery one is stalking a huge snake by the entrance.

I would have loved to have met Aw Boon Haw... a man who drove around in a tiger-mobile like this just must have been worth knowing! The car is a special built (talk about it...!) Humber from 1932. Mr. Boon Haw drove around with it not only in Singapore, but also in Malaysia and all the way up to China - what a sight in the streets & highways... His register plate carries a special lucky number, S.8989, as number 8 ('paat'  in Chinese) sounds very much like the word for 'prosper' ('faat'). It seems to have worked well for Boon Haw?

Aw Boon Haw's love for sculpture and his "flamboyant" sense for marketing led to the creation of this eccentric park, where he wished not just to entertain the Singaporean families, but also to spread the message of Chinese mythology, legends and culture, all rendered in garishly painted concrete. All in all, over 100 sculptures and 150 dioramas fill all nooks and corners of the hilly park. In the early years, the park was filled with visitors, but as time passed, the public's attention was driven to more modern entertainments. After years of slow deterioration, Singapore Tourism Board took over Haw Par Villa in 1988, and has since then led both operations and renovations of this quite bizarre attraction.

Entrance to the Ten Courts of Hell, one of the most original and gruesome displays in the park. It is a combination of Chinese folklore and Buddhism, and shows what supposedly happens to people after death. According to their beliefs only very few, completely pure souls enter the Heaven through the Bridge of Gold, and the rest wander through the Nine Courts of Hell where they pay for their crimes through horrendous punishments. After entering the Tenth Court a magic tea of forgetfulness is served, after which they can be born again as men or animals of different kinds according to their behaviour in their previous lives.

The severity of the crimes and punishments don't seem to have any correlation in my eyes - petty crimes, as "Disrespect to elders" and "Ungratefulness" carry as heavy punishments as murder and other horrors... (or maybe the senior audience disagrees here?).

"Misuse of books" and "Wasting food" lead to "Body sawn into two". Understandably the favorite sign of many parents - "Kids, eat your veggies", as one of my friends expressed it...

As I wrote in the beginning of this post, this is not a beautiful park; despite several mentions as a "garden", there were nothing but very plain, municipal-style plantings, with the addition of an odd pond or water feature. Many areas are (still?) in disrepair, colours of the sculptures are often bleached and flaking in the sun, and green lichen is growing on the pathways, and many of the information boards had surrended to a tropical decay afflicted by stinging sun followed by monsoon downpours.

A couple of pavilions, with Buddhas inside and on the top.
And what is the moral lesson of this? No English explanations, but it can't be his wearing turqouise underwear alone...

One of the more traditional legends? Unfortunately again without explanations in English. Chinese folklore, stories and beliefs related to the Buddhist  religion, and Taoist and Confucian philosophies mingle here gladly, so 'encrypting' the message takes some experience and knowledge...

I don't usually like things or places that feel too "artificial" - for example, I am happy to never (again) set my foot in Disneyland or other similar places - and Haw Par Villa is nothing if not artificial and commercial, made as it is to promote one single (rather smelly) ointment. But somehow it is so completely over the top crazy, that it becomes extremely interesting. Tons and tons of painted concrete covering acres of what could be beautiful jungle; it's just insane, and makes me wonder how Aw Boon Haw who created it really was as a person. Eccentric, flamboyant; yes, but also very proud -  maybe obsessed - of both his product, and of his own Chinese culture, and desperately eager to convey its myths and values to a wider public (actually, he didn't just build one in Singapore, but there were Tiger Balm Gardens in Hong Kong and in Fujian in China, too).

Are these some kind of guardians or just poor women transformed into crustaceans? 

Guys are not safe, either...

I would love to hear what Singaporeans of the early years thought of this park; did they enjoy the lessons like Boon Haw had wished? For a foreigner like me, the Haw Par Villa is an excellent place for some colorful lessons about Chinese culture, and I thank Boon Haw for his extravagant idea of building up the old myths and legends for us all to gawk at and wonder. To my surprise, my 10 and 12 year old girls loved the place too, skipping from one blood-curling scene to another, inspecting the sculptures and dioramas with a bubbling laughter (mostly in wrong places). I'm sure quite many of them stuck and made an permanent impression, which would probably have made Aw Boon Haw very happy. And myself, I'll never be able to go past a humble little Tiger Balm jar in the same indifferent way again.